|Ryan Yi, photo by Glenn Minshall|
I don’t mean here generally—at NMH—I mean up here on this podium. Part of it, as some of you know, is that I’ve suffered from stage fright for as long as I can remember. But it’s mostly because I don’t believe, by virtue of having a certain GPA, that I have any kind of wisdom that my fellow classmates don’t. I’ve lived a life just as short and full as yours.
That being said, I’m being honored with the opportunity to speak in front of all of you, and I thought I would spend it sharing with you the only thing I can: a story. In a way, it’s a story of who I am, and how I got here. Fair warning: it will be melodramatic, just a little bit morbid, and will slightly exceed the time allotted for it. It will contain tortured metaphors, far too many large words, and will be easily forgotten but will leave you with the sense of finality, accomplishment, and nostalgia that this occasion demands.
I’ll start at the beginning — freshman year. HUM 1. On the very first day, A Block, our two HUM classes were shuttled by both our teachers into a darkened Grandin. All the lights were out, and there was no sound except for a recording of an aboriginal Australian didgeridoo playing in the background. We were all awkward and didn’t know what to do — as freshmen usually are. Neither of the teachers was in the room, and we were given no instructions. We stood there for a good five or 10 minutes in the dark, going back and forth between uncomfortable snickering and total silence. Eventually, our teachers entered, each holding a flashlight. They walked around, clearly enjoying themselves as they shined the lights directly into our faces, and one started reading a poem by Mary Oliver, which started with just these five words:
Make of yourself a light
And I, faced with the depth and wisdom of this poetry, thought to myself, what a load of utter crap.
To explain for those seniors who weren’t here freshman year, I congratulate you. I envy you for not having made such embarrassing memories as we — the four-year seniors—have, nor suffered the humiliation of living with them now.
On the other hand, I was here, and when I came to NMH, I wasn’t actually all that great a student. I did my best, a lot of the time, to do the bare minimum. I procrastinated, and I talked back to teachers I didn’t respect. I was lazy, arrogant, and insecure, and I had the Justin Bieber bowl cut to prove it.
Now, at the very least, I have a different haircut.
“Make of yourself a light.” Those of you who know me now will hardly call me a light, but I also think you would say that I’m not quite the same person that I was in that darkened room — that person who had no understanding of what those words might mean. I’ve thought of NMH as my home for a while now not just because I’ve lived here longer than I have in any other home, but because NMH was the first place where I could really explore myself — could look at who I am. And, those four years ago, I realized upon doing so that I didn’t like what I saw.
What’s happened since?
I fell in love with running half naked to the Northfield Creamie after the end of the year. I fell in love with making trips to Brattleboro to buy five-pound bags of dried mango in bulk, and with singing in an a cappella concert for the first time, and with walking up and down the same frickin’ hill three times a day. I fell in love with how ugly Cutler is and how beautiful the woods are when it snows. I fell in love with biology and math, and all the things I used to love reading about as a kid but avoided more and more as I got older. I fell in love with my friends, and I fell in love with who I am — or at least, who I’m learning to be.
My NMH career began with five words of Mary Oliver, and so I thought it was fitting to end it with 10. They are two different lines, from two different poems of hers, but ones that, for me, mean more together than they do apart. They go like this:
To love what is mortal—
This, too, is a gift.
I don’t offer these words to you now just to be characteristically morbid, but as a reminder that while our NMH careers are “mortal” — in that they are coming to an end — that’s no reason to grieve. After all, God knows I wouldn’t want to be stuck in high school forever. Seniors, just as it’s okay for you to feel sad for leaving, it’s okay for you to feel glad that the time has come to go. These past years have given us so much, and the fact they they are coming to an end — and that this will no longer be our home — makes our time here all that more special. NMH is a blessing that we will carry for the rest of our lives, and we should take that — feel that fact in our hands — and feel grateful, as we turn to leave, for all the possibilities opening to us as we do so, because this, too, is a gift.
Now, unlike the valedictorian, who speaks at class day, I have the opportunity to speak in front of the entire community. And so I wanted to take this one last chance to say goodbye, to all of you. As much as I’ve said about NMH being like a home, this goodbye is not meant as a declaration of undying love for you. It’s not a “See you soon.” It’s not a promise that we’ll be best friends forever, or that I know who you are and how you got here, or even that I know your name. But it is a thank you, and an encouragement.
To the ninth graders, this goodbye is meant as a challenge to do as I began to do in my freshman year: to begin the process of becoming who you’ve always wanted to be, but never hoped to become.
To the sophomores, it’s a reminder to look back at the two years you’ve had so far, to realize how quickly they have passed, and not to squander the two years that you have remaining.
To the juniors, as you begin to think about the place you will next call home, it’s a warning not to lose sight of all that is to be had at the home you have now.
And, to my fellow students in the Class of 2018, this goodbye is meant as an invitation to feel, openly and deeply, the tension between the grief over losing your home, and the joy that accompanies having outgrown it.
This goodbye is meant as a recognition, a “thank you” for being a part of my life these last years; one last expression of my gratitude to every student, teacher, and staff member who has been a part of them. And it is, lastly, a sign that, after four full years, I’m finally ready to say the words out loud: Goodbye.